09/04/2014 06:19 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Stage Door: Ute Lemper Sings Love Songs of Pablo Neruda


Versatility never sounded so good -- especially in a sultry setting.

The heat on stage is courtesy of world-famous chanteuse extraordinaire Ute Lemper, who sings the love poems of Pablo Neruda. The place is New York's elegant 54 Below and through Sept. 6, Lemper, renown for doing the Kurt Weill songbook, is paying homage to the great Chilean poet, politician and winner of the 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature.

It may sound like an unusual topic for cabaret, but the actress, who devised the concept, melodies and vocal compositions, scores another musical triumph. Her jazzy rendition of Neruda's love poems is hypnotic, delivered in Spanish, French and English. (She's aided by six talented musicians, but Jesse Mills on violin and Vana Gierig on piano are standouts.)

Of course, themes of passion, survival and dissent pepper her catalog; she is adept at channeling the sensuality and sorrow of any literary inspiration, be it pre-WWII Germany or Astor Piazzolla's tango nuevo, which she performed beautifully several years ago at Joe's Pub downtown.

Lemper's charm and vocal range have been heralded worldwide, but it's her intelligence and sensitivity that imbues her musical interpretation of Neruda's work. Praised by many as the greatest poet writing in the Spanish language during his lifetime, some of his most celebrated poetry dates from the 1930s and'40s.

Known for his anti-fascist stance, Neruda put art in the service of politics. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, he championed the Republican cause with the poem "España en el Corazon." It resulted in his dismissal from his consular post. He later served in France and Mexico, where his left-wing politics caused less anxiety.

And while Lemper notes his humanitarian actions, she says she "chose these poems to celebrate love, passion and life." Her melodies, which focus on the rhythm and sound of his original phrases, have achieved the musical equivalence of his heartache. In "Absence," Neruda writes:

My love,
we have found each other
Thirsty and we have
drunk up all the water and
the blood,
we found each other hungry.
And we bit each other
as fire bites,
leaving wounds in us

It's easy to understand Lemper's attraction; she is a longtime interpreter of pre-war cabaret for American audiences, and her own global travels have made her especially keen and uniquely qualified to highlight cultural legacies. Lemper's captivating adaptation is a fitting tribute to Neruda's sensual artistry.